Wednesday, August 18, 2010


According to Scott Berkun, who spent nine years as a program manager for Microsoft’s biggest projects, here is a list of pragmatic advice on what to do when things go wrong in a project:

1. Calm down:

Nothing makes a situation worse than basing your actions on fear, anger, or frustration. Don’t flinch or overreact—be patient, keep breathing, and pay attention.

2. Evaluate the problem in relation to the project:

Is this really a problem at all? Whose problem is it? How much of the project (or its goals) is at risk or may need to change because of this situation: 5%? 20%? 90%?

Put things in perspective. Will anyone die because of this mistake?

Help everyone frame the problem to the right emotional and intellectual scale. Ask tons of questions and get people thinking rather than reacting. Work to eliminate assumptions. Make sure you have a tangible understanding of the problem and its true impact.

Then, prioritize: emergency (now!), big concern (today), minor concern (this or next week), bogus (never).

3. Calm down again:

Know what works for you, and use it. Then return to the problem.

4. Get the right people in the room:

Any major problem won’t impact you alone. Identify who else is most responsible, knowledgeable, and useful and get them in together straight away.

5. Explore alternatives:

After answering any questions and clarifying the situation, figure out what your options are.

Be as specific as possible in your expectation for when answers are needed.

6. Make the simplest plan:

Weigh the options, pick the best choice, and make a simple plan. The best available choice is the best available choice, no matter how much it sucks.

Break the plan into simple steps to make sure no one gets confused. Identify two lists of people: those whose approval you need for the plan, and those who need to be informed of the plan before it is executed. Go to the first group, present the plan, consider their feedback, and get their support. Then communicate that information to the second group.

7. Execute:

Make it happen. Ensure whoever is doing the work was involved in the process and has an intimate understanding of why he’s doing it.

Have specific checkpoints (hourly, daily, weekly) to make sure the plan has the desired effect and to force you and others in power to consider any additional effort that needs to be spent on this issue. If new problems do arise, start over at step 1.

8. Debrief.

After the fire is out, get the right people in the room and generate a list of lessons learned.

Ask the question: “What can we do next time to avoid this?” The bigger the issue, the more answers you’ll have to this question. Prioritize the list. Consider who should be responsible for making sure each of the first few items happens.

By the way, Scott Berkun is also the author of the book, 'Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management'.

The foregoing advisory comes from an review based on Chapter 11 of the book. Readers can go to this link to read it in its entirety.

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